By Michael Anderson
This past summer marked the 40th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — consistently rated as the #1 Rock album of all time by many critics and polls.

At the time of its release, the Beatles were the undisputed kings of Pop music — in terms of sales, critical acclaim, popularity, and any measurable as well as immeasurable criteria available then or now.

In talking about it to a songwriting class at Musicians Institute recently, I realized how difficult it would be for a Pop music fan of today to understand how big an influence the Beatles were in their day. I would even say I don't know if any artist has ever held the position of dominance in the Pop music field at any one time that the Beatles held in the summer of 1967 — and that would include Frank Sinatra, Elvis, or anyone since.

In thinking about that album, and that time, and in context to the way I approach teaching songwriting in an academic sense, and screening at TAXI, I felt compelled to balance the scales a bit in terms of overview.

Anytime one tries to quantify and qualify an art form for the purpose of instruction, it becomes necessary, unfortunately, to codify a method. In itself that is, in a sense, anti-art. You end up looking at the elements that can be objectively analyzed. In the case of songwriting, that could be the melody, the structure, the form, the lyric development, and style.


Even though we are working and creating in a time where it seems like there are no rules, or too many rules, there is always a balance.

But everyone knows, at least somewhere inside, that a song is more than that. It is a case of the old, "the total being greater than the sum of the parts."

At the time of the release of Sgt. Pepper's the Beatles had very effectively mastered the Pop song form as it existed at the time — they had hit after hit on the Pop charts in the style of song popular then: around three minutes, hooky chorus, catchy title, memorable / hummable melody, and relatable in terms of lyric development to the predominant teen audience.

But the Beatles also had artistic, cultural credibility — and they used it with the type of songs they put on Sgt. Pepper's. They blew up the Pop form and expanded it, and brought in themes and imagery, structural complexity, and lyric development that stretched what may have been perceived as what the audience could handle — and pulled it off in a way only the Beatles at that time could have done it.

And what does that teach us as songwriters today?

That even though we are working and creating in a time where it seems like there are no rules, or too many rules, there is always a balance.

It gets too easy to look at songs from a technical perspective — it gets too easy to over analyze songs during the creation and measure it against the forms and rules learned in books, classes, and seminars. That sometimes you have to blow up the rules and expand the territory and vocabulary of what you are working with in order to communicate on a new and more intuitive level.


Artists like the Beatles, and records like Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, show us that even in the current climate, sometimes great art, critical acclaim, commercial success, and lasting appreciation can be achieved. Even a combination of a couple of those is pretty cool — but putting them all together the way the Beatles did 40 years ago this summer, gives the rest of us a higher standard to aim for.

Now the balance in that is the Beatles were absolute masters of their craft — they knew exactly what they were doing. They knew how to write, record, and sell hit Pop songs in the form that was prevalent at the time. They probably could have milked that golden goose (how's that for a mixed metaphor?) for a long time — to the point where they could have been a nostalgia band and touring like the Stones as long they were alive.

But they chose instead to take what they knew, step out, and do something radically different, and see what happened. Well, it just so happened the world was ready for them to do it, and trusted them to lead — and followed — and the rest, as they say, is history. But I think even if it had not been a commercial success at the time, it would have eventually claimed its place in history as a musical statement.

The contemporary Pop music landscape is probably more pre-Sgt. Pepper like now, 40 years later, than any time since the spring of '67. The three-minute hook driven Pop song is as much the rule now as it was then. And there doesn't seem to be an artist in the current landscape with the credibility to flagrantly ignore the business considerations of radio, the labels, and audience expectations to put out an album of experimental music that would literally change the world.

But that doesn't mean that a writer should blindly repeat all the same old stuff, adhere to the obvious rules, and rewrite the same Pop songs over and over in an attempt to achieve commercial success because that's what is expected.

Artists like the Beatles, and records like Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, show us that even in the current climate, sometimes great art, critical acclaim, commercial success, and lasting appreciation can be achieved. Even a combination of a couple of those is pretty cool — but putting them all together the way the Beatles did 40 years ago this summer, gives the rest of us a higher standard to aim for.



You can order Michael Anderson's "Little Black Book of Songwriting" from michaelanderson.com or Amazon.com.

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